4. In what ways was Les Quatre Cents Coups / The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959) a representative film of the French New Wave?
The period of the French New Wave, 1959-1963 (Annette Kuhn: 202), centred on innovation and experimentation in the filmmaking business, in a time when audience numbers declined because of new leisure opportunities and when sexual liberation came with a change in morality. Government subsidiaries and new talent support encouraged an industrial change. The prize winning The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959) represents the characteristics of this European art cinema in particular which will be further explored in this essay (James Russel: New Waves).
In the foreground stood the film as self-expression of the auteur, meaning young, new directors mostly with an intellectual background delivered their own stories as artists (James Chapman: 242). The new director, Truffaut, as a former Cahier du Cinèma critic like other New Wave filmmakers, provided the story of The 400 Blows on an autobiographic basis (Annette Kuhn: 202-203), using the typical first-person subjective view in “history on images” (James Chapman: 249). His debut feature had real relations to his life such as the trouble in school, the time at the correctional centre (Jill Nelmes: 408), the theft of the typewriter and the problematic mother-son relationship (James Russel: New Waves), which provides the New Wave’s authenticity (Jean Douchet).
Like his colleagues, he was influenced by cinema vérité icon, Jean Renoir, and neo-realist, Robert Rossillini, who was his advisor for the film (Jill Nelmes: 408). New Wave also meant abandoning the “Tradition of Quality” by rejecting industrial production, exploring the freedom without distributors having a say (Jill Nelmes: 417). This was possible with the new technology, light-weighing handheld cameras and portable sound-recording, like the Nagra tape-recorder; out of studio production, disregarding conventions with outdoor filming, using natural light and sound, gave films a naturalistic look, seen in Truffaut’s film shot on-street in Paris (Jill Nelmes: 413).
Another cheap attribute of the low-cost films was the use of unknown, non-professional actors; in the film, Jean-Pierre Léaud almost doubles Truffaut as Antoine, but through improvisation incorporating own characteristics as well. A feature characterizing European art cinema was a special relationship between director and leading actor; here, Jean-Pierre was acknowledged more as a person than his character by Truffaut, who made five more films employing him (Jill Nelmes: 417).
New Wave typical film techniques are deployed in the film as well (Jill Nelmes: 409); there is a lyrical style, many long-takes such as the gym jogging lesson through Paris, a mobile camera style following Antoine often and giving a directness and intimacy, and a freeze frame ends the film underlining the examination of human behaviour in the film (Passion for Cinema). The ambiguous end also omits a narrative closure supporting the non-linear narrative about the “search of youthfulness, modernity and spontaneity” (Jill Nelmes: 417) in the “fluid and ambiguous reality” (Senses of Cinema) explored by New Wave films.
Truffaut is a key figure of the French New Wave as a former consumer, using his film to provide an authentic, innovative, modern feature with social criticism and self-expression, where the youthful character drives the narrative instead of the plot to convey the auteur’s message. Therefore, The 400 Blows comprises most of the qualities credited to this art cinema.